UFW sexism and homophobia drove lesbian organizer out of union

Many union organizers have objected to the United Farm Workers’ old-boy network that they say marginalizes women, indigenous people, and political progressives. They’ve kept their complaints quiet for fear of upsetting the political establishment in Sacramento. Those politicians, led by Senator Kevin de Leon and Governor Jerry Brown, have pretended not to notice the UFW’s backwardness.

But some organizers have been vocal. A lesbian Indigenous former UFW organizer writes that she experienced an atmosphere of sexism, discrimination, and homophobia among the union leadership. Those institutional prejudices forced her to quit.

UFW leaders control the tiny union with an iron fist, having been on the payroll for as many as 44 years. Union President Arturo Rodriguez likes to make a public show of his support for LGBTQ workers, but the fact is, he tolerates institutional homophobia throughout the ranks.

Some UFW organizers find the union’s old-boy network so oppressive that they can no longer stay in the sindicato, even though they are devoted, progressive labor organizers.

Pick Justice recently discovered the story of a P’urhepecha woman who felt forced to leave the union, as she described in an article she wrote two years ago. The former UFW organizer, who calls herself La Stephanie, describes how the union leadership marginalized her and tried – but failed – to make her feel worthless.

She felt elated, she wrote, when she received an opportunity in 2011 to work for the UFW. Her job, in eastern Oregon and Washington state, would be to “represent Black, Southeast Asian, and Mexican farmworkers that had voted the UFW into their worksite,” she said. It was an exciting time.

La Stephanie loved the work and loved the workers. “In the end, however, I had to leave them,” she wrote. “I could no longer work with the UFW. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

Here’s what she experienced:

  • Backwardness: “. . . working for the union was . . . . like traveling back in time.” La Stephanie wrote, “The UFW felt like such a time warp, I was surprised I wasn’t asked to cook and clean up after male staff during my time there.”
  • Discrimination against women: “Women on staff were more likely to spend their time doing administrative duties in the office rather than being out in the field, representing farmworkers.”
  • Marginalization of women from leadership: “When it came time to strategize about how to make the union stronger and more efficient, I was the only one discussing the importance of having women at the table with management. I was also the only one suggesting more women participate in worker leadership.”
  • ‘No room’ for women’s opinions: “It was clear the Union structure made no room for the voices of women and at times I feel as if the older Mexican women had come to expect that their voices and opinions wouldn’t matter. Farmworker women knew how to speak their mind, but it was rare that anyone pushed them to participate beyond that.”
  • Historical problem continued: I wanted to organize farmworkers with other women at the forefront, but there were no other women organizers where I worked, and, historically, the Union had done little to reinforce the importance of women worker voices. . . .”
  • Institutional homophobia: “Staff blatantly used homophobic language. . . . Instead of discussing [another] supervisor’s incompetence, my supervisor simply referred to him as a ‘joto’ [Mexican derogatory slang for homosexual]. Joto became a catch-all word for anyone participating in undesirable behavior, and it also became a way to exert dominance over growers.” Union staff used the insult in front of openly gay and lesbian organizers. According to La Stephanie, “This language was used openly, even though I was out to my supervisor.”
  • Male domination over women: “Men and women sat separately and when women did share room with men, men sharply dominated the space,” La Stephanie said. Concerning her supervisor, she added, “If you don’t play the docile, well-behaved woman, it was as if you were speaking a language he didn’t understand.”
  • Inept men promoted over capable women: “My supervisor was placed in a regional director position even though he had taken no management training and had likely never supervised other staff.” She added, “Incompetence was rewarded” at the UFW.
  • Hostile work environment was like domestic abuse: “I cut my time at the union short because I couldn’t take it any more. Being in the UFW was reminiscent of being back in an abusive home.”
  • Blatant sexism: “. . . nothing was ever done to improve the work environment. The sexism that was perpetuated disgusted me.”

Liberation, with regrets

For La Stephanie, it was a liberating experience to leave the UFW. “I no longer had to work in fear,” she said. “I no longer had to feel isolated and alone. I was no longer going to be gaslit or made to feel irrational. As soon as I left, I began to feel strong again.”

Even so, she added, “it feels like a part of me was taken because I can’t organize with farmworkers any more. . . .”